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A Good Night’s Sleep
Doris Eraldi

Most of us don’t think too much about how well our horses sleep. It’s common knowledge that horses can nap standing up, and as the ones who have to groom off all the mud and dust when our horses choose to lay down, we tend to wish they never did. But in order for our horses to be healthy both physically and mentally, they need to develop an appropriate sleep routine, just like us.

Similarly to humans, horses have two levels of sleep – slow wave sleep (SWS) and paradoxial sleep (PS). In horses, SWS is achieved when they nap standing up. Like most prey animals, who’s survival depends on being prepared to flee predators at any moment, the horse has a “stay apparatus.” This is a system of tendons and ligaments that hold the horse in the standing position even when his muscles relax in sleep. Horses can spend up to 15 hours a day in standing rest, but for complete relaxation – the paradoxical sleep – he needs to lie down on his side. It is during the PS phase of sleep that the horse’s body truly relaxes. Most horses (depending on age, physical limitations and comfort level) will sleep for anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours in this deep sleep.

A horse must feel comfortable and secure enough to lay down to sleep. He also needs to have an inviting bed. Surprisingly, a deeply bedded stall is not always the preferred arrangement. Studies have shown that feral horses, and those who live in herd situation on pasture, get the most quality sleep time. In a herd situation, one or two horses routinely stand sentinel, while the rest repose. Also, in a pasture or wild situation, the horse can choose his own comfortable bed – often a soft dusty spot or thick grass. The horse that is locked in his stall may make his owner feel safe, but to the horse it is an isolation box where he can not see what is approaching. Horses that are confined to small areas that have hard footing such as a graveled paddock, will not be as likely to lie down either. Sometimes boarding stable situations where the horse does not have a choice of companions can be limiting too – an aggressive neighbor is not going to reassure the horse.

Many of our horses have become accustomed to living in domestic situations and so they sleep regularly even if they are alone, but to encourage our horse to get the deeper levels of sleep we need to assess the horse’s environment. Provide a soft, cushy place to lie down, preferably somewhere the horse can see out. One study has shown that horses lie down longer if bedded in straw than in shavings, but I suspect that it has more to do with the deepness of the shavings. I had this personally pointed out to me recently by my own gelding. After a long day at a show, I put a bale of shavings into his stall. He didn’t even wait for me to spread the shavings around, but climbed up on the middle of the pile, lay down and went to sleep! Since the rest of his stall and pen are the typical hard graveled ground, he made it quite obvious what he needed.

Another reason that a horse might not lie down often enough is the fear or lack of ability to get back up. Older horses and those with back or hind leg problems such as arthritis may be reluctant to lie down at all.

Some horses will lie down and sleep while we are watching but many won’t. How do you know if your horse is getting some good sleep time? Often our only signs are the shavings or dirt in their manes and on their backs. Horses that are not sleeping enough might be stressed and fatigued, and appear to fall so deeply asleep while standing that they start to fall. These same horses might seem to lack endurance when they are working, or seem distracted instead of paying attention. While it is not such a common problem that we want to excuse training problems for it, being aware of our horse’s need for sleep, and providing him with an appropriate and comfortable place to rest, can definitely make a difference in his attitude and performance.

Doris Eraldi and Blue, 2005Doris Eraldi of Eraldi Training in Potter Valley, trains horses and riders of all ages. She specializes in Pleasure, Showmanship and Equitation events. She can be contacted at 707-743-1337, or by e-mail

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